The past three decades seem to have softened director Mike Nichols, who began his career with a toothsome 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and continued with 1967's The Graduate and 1971's Carnal Knowledge, two pessimistic appraisals of human relationships. In the years since, Nichols' uneven filmography has won praise for its maturity and tastefulness, but the titles are rarely less than ingratiating, and have never approached the daring provocation of his early work. So it's a pleasant surprise that his new Closer, a lacerating four-character suite on the elusiveness of love and intimacy, finds Nichols returning to his roots without having lost his sardonic edge.
"The heart is a fist wrapped in blood," deadpans Clive Owen, who plays the most Darwinian of romantic aggressors, though not necessarily the most devious. It's a stretch to say that Closer chronicles four misguided quests for happiness—or that any of the people involved are even capable of being happy—but they're just vulnerable enough to hurt each other. The film opens with the impossibly romantic image of two lonely faces connecting in a crowd, but an accident breaks the spell: After fleeing a bad relationship all the way to London, free-spirited American Natalie Portman almost literally falls into Jude Law's arms when she's clipped by a cabbie on the left side of the road. Their fateful encounter blossoms into an affair that inspires Law, who writes obituaries ("the Siberia of journalism"), to write a novel. A year later, Law gets a book-jacket photo snapped by Julia Roberts, an older and more experienced woman who immediately seizes his interest. The love triangle turns into a square when Law draws Owen into an Internet sex chat-room and unwittingly arranges for him to meet Roberts, who later agrees to marry him.
In keeping with his source material, a play by Patrick Marber, Nichols dramatically leaps through time, covering months or sometimes years in the span of a single cut. The effect is jarring and exhilarating, but it also bucks the common idea that relationships deepen over time, when instead, many couples tire of each other and restlessly seek out new terrain. Unlike in Woolf or this year's We Don't Live Here Anymore, Nichols and Marber aren't exposing marriage as a rotting institution, but grappling with the difficulty of lasting love, especially when the partners involved are interested foremost in their own gratification. With uncompromising power, Closer examines the heartache and betrayals of people who remain strangers to each other, no matter how familiar they seem.